Joshua Landis on Syria: It’s Going to Be Long and Bloody and Assad Isn’t Going Anytime Soon

November 4, 2012

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on OCTOBER 31, 2012: 

With the weekend Eid al Adha “ceasefire” broken in Syria, and continuous fighting since, there appears to be less and less hope of a resolution to the sectarian conflict in Syria that is turning into a civil war and an international quagmire.

Noted Syria scholar, University of Oklahoma Associate Professor of Middle East Studies Joshua Landis, came to Duke University Monday night to address “Syria: What Lies Ahead”.  If the audience was expecting a prediction on the Syrian situation, they got one almost right away — that “it’s going to be long and bloody and Assad isn’t going anytime soon.”

It is really that dire.

“Why is it going to be long and bloody?” Landis asked and answered in a nearly two-hour public lecture, which included an intense Q & A session with scholars and local Syrians who had gathered at the Duke Islamic Studies Center to hear him speak.

The Regime 

The Assad regime is relatively strong, he said, which is not to say it won’t fall eventually. The opposition is weak and fragmented, though gaining strength. And there has been no major foreign intervention, though countries seem to be lining up to back either Assad or the opposition in a manner that resembles the Cold War scenario.

“The regime is strong, really for many of the same reasons it’s weak. Because it’s a minoritarian regime,” explained Landis. “In this day of popular revolt and demand for democracy, there isn’t a place for minoritarian regimes left in the Middle East.  The Alawite regime is the last of these minoritarian regimes in these multiethnic lands, and it will fall because the Alawites are only 12% of the Syrian population.”

So how is it holding onto power then? “Fear. Alawite fear.” “The regime,” he said, is “closing in on itself.” The Alawites, often referred to as heterodox Muslims, believe they are doomed if Assad falls. So do most other minorities including Christians, who, together with the Alawites, comprise 20 percent of the population. Sunni Arabs make up 70 percent of the population and Sunni Kurds account for 10 percent.

“Today they’re (the minorities) all one, even if they criticize the regime. They know it’s corrupt. They know they’ve (the regime) done bad things. But they are worried, being an Alawite community, (about) an Islamist government and what could happen,” said Landis, who speaks from personal knowledge — his wife is Syrian Alawite — and scholarly expertise.

“That anxiety of what will happen to the future of the Alawites if they go down has allowed the Assads to take this regime, take the Alawite community into this terrible killing fields … to bring them to this position where they are willing to kill their fellow countrymen.”

The death toll on both sides exceeded 500 this week.

Landis believes the country’s minorities, mostly supporters of the regime, are going to fight “just the way the Maronites did (in Lebanon), the Palestinians, or the Sunnis in Iraq, to claim power.”

He argued, “(Bashar) Assad is to blame for a lot of the sectarian violence and for driving this sectarian battle and fanning the flames of sectarian fear.  He called everybody a Salafist (and said that) this is an Islamic revolution,” said Landis. “He played the minority card and that’s been his strategy throughout. But this helps explain why Alawites feel they have their back to the wall, and why they’re willing, in a sense, to go down with this regime and why it’s going to be long and bloody.”

Another major factor contributing to the strength of the regime, Landis says, and one that has no parallel in the Arab Spring countries, is that the Assads “have prepared for this uprising for 40 years”.

“Unlike Mubarak or even Gaddafi or certainly the Tunisian president who let their children go into international banking, (Hafez) Assad put his children in the military. They understood that the Sunnis were going to rise up and throw them out. They tried it in 1982 with the Hama revolt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and it had been put down brutally … They knew what was going to come, so they stuffed their children in the military, trained them… put all their relatives in the top of the security state.”

An estimated 70 to 80 percent (perhaps an exaggeration he said) of the officer corps are Alawite — in any case “a tremendous over-representation.” In the intelligence units there’s even heavier Alawite representation (by percentage), which is, Landis said, because “the Alawites didn’t trust the Sunnis.”

The Opposition

The opposition, meanwhile, is very fragmented, he said, and no one knows the exact number of militias in this “free market militia environment.”

“In the last several months we’ve seen a number of bigger militias emerge out of this Darwinian world of militias in which they’re sucking up a lot of  the smaller ones around them. We still don’t know who’s going to win out of these militias, but we are beginning to get a better idea of the top 5 or 10.”

These militias try and form coalitions and they fall apart, which Landis said makes it a very fluid situation and “extremely difficult for the United States or anybody else who wants to support the Syrian resistance because they’re not sure who’s going to be the winner.”

“You don’t want to jump in before you know who the winner is because you’ll end up backing a loser which America has done several times before.”

The International Community

After trying to set up a Syrian National Council which ultimately failed, the U.S. set up an office in Istanbul where they’re now trying to meet all the commanders on the ground, the coordinating committees, and other political people, Landis said.

“Obviously they don’t like what they see, bec ause they’re not committing to anybody so far, at least they don’t know them…I think that Obama’s been excessively timid because he’s got elections.”

Another part of the U.S. strategy has been to starve the regime through sanctions, which hasn’t really worked, Landis said, because it’s weakening the whole country—the opposition, the regime, and the people who are starving as a result.

Syria, about the size of Iraq, has a population of about 21 million. Landis paints a grim economic picture of this country which gained its independence from France in 1946. The per capita GDP was $3,000 before the 2011 revolution broke out and has since dropped to $1,000. The currency has collapsed.

“People are not going to be able to feed themselves this winter. There’s about 3 hours electricity a day. The school system is broken,” he said, and it appears that if and when this civil war ends, Syria is going to have to rely on outsiders to help it rebuild. Unlike Iraq, tt doesn’t have the oil money to accomplish this.

Complicating matters, as Syria watchers know, the international community is extremely divided on Syria.

Landis describes a “Shiite crescent”, anchored by Iran, of Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, Syria’s Alawite regime, and Shiite-ruled Iraq, who are interested in keeping Assad in power.

(Worth mentioning — He also noted a recent New York Times story about successful efforts on the part of the Iraqi regime to recruit Shiite fighters and Sadarists to aid the Syrian regime. Militant Sunnis from Iraq are already fighting on the side of the rebels)

Russia and China, and the other BRIC countries, who have “raised a lot of questions and voted with” the two, also line up in that column.

“Against that, of course, you’ve got the Sunni sandwich… Saudia Arabia, the whole Gulf and Egypt, and Turkey on top. Syria’s sandwiched in between these Sunni powers that want to destroy and overturn this regime.  And they (the opposition) are backed by Europe and the United States, which would seem to be a pretty major combination to beat.”

Landis said that neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey, who the U.S. “spent a year trying to push to take the lead on solving the Syria crisis,”  have stepped up.

And, the U.S. doesn’t want another Vietnam or Iraq, and “has nation building fatigue.” Neither the Congress nor the American people, he believes, would be willing to send in troops or foot the bill for rebuilding the country, and “the U.S. military does not want to get into the business of Syria at all.”

“I think everybody is very aware that they’re going to get punished if they let themselves get sucked into Syria. That’s the great fear of Obama clearly. He wants to get out of the Middle East, that’s his message to America. So trying to get sucked back into Syria through the back door is not something that he wants to do. And maybe after Nov. 6 we’ll see a change in policy. But no foreign intervention. And because of these factors: regime relatively strong, opposition fragmented and no foreign intervention, it’s going to be long and bloody. And we’ve seen this paradigm in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.”

Models for the Future ?

What does the future hold? Landis believes “democracy is unlikely,” and that there are at least three different models for how it could go.

The Turkish/Anatolian ethnic cleansing model (which he’s not advocating but an idea that looms in the minds of Syria’s minorities) is one possibility. This was replicated in Europe with the Jewish population and in Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars.

The Iraq model, is another possibility — whereby a foreign military force comes in and destroys Assad’s army completely, gets rid of the Baath Party, and rebuilds Syria on a Sunni basis, with the minorities being allowed to stay or go — but with them “knowing who’s boss.”

Still another possibility —  the Lebanon model — in which Assad’s army and the Alawite population is chased out of the Aleppo and Damascus and into the mountains or elsewhere, nothing is really resolved, and the civil war continues on for who knows how long. In Lebanon the civil war lasted 15 years.

Another Way Out?

While none of those scenarios are encouraging, Landis did offer a positive spin during the Q & A session and an idea for another way out.

“There’s great potential for Syria,” he said. “Seventy percent Sunni Arabs who have been extremely moderate throughout history. They’re not Wahabi. They are much more open- minded. They’re used to living with minorities. Certainly the commercial elite of Aleppo and in Damascus are liberal minded.  Every Syrian will tell you why Syria is different than Lebanon or Iraq—that we have this liberal attitude toward the world. We want to get along. We deal. We’re not fanatical. So that is a ballast for a new Syria.”

In his Syria Comment blog on October 22, 2012 Landis made the case for the U.S. to “help destroy the Syrian Air Force if Assad doesn’t come to some kind of negotiating stand, by giving shoulder held missiles.” In suggesting this he broke with his view, articulated in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy in June, that the US should stay out of Syria. He said he’s gotten major “blowback” on that from extended family members, opinion leaders, and followers of his blog and work.

Back in February Landis wrote a Middle East Policy Journal essay in which he said the Assad regime would still be around in 2013. I asked if he is revising this prediction? He said he believes Assad will be around, even if he’s just a warlord leading an Alawite militia… which is, he said, increasingly the direction the Syrian Army is headed.

Watch the Full Public Lecture (top) 

Watch the Q & A with Duke Students, Faculty, Staff, and Members of the Public 

Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor, University of Oklahoma. Syria Comment is his blog. His lecture, detailed above, was part of the Duke Islamic Studies Center/Religion Department/ Duke Middle East Studies Center lecture series “The Islamic Middle East and Its Religious Minorities.”  His lecture was co-sponsored by the Duke-UNC Consortium of Middle East Studies. 


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  1. barbara collins says:

    Excellent article.